It is the Ides of March and here I am blogging about building unforgettable villains.
What makes a villain unforgettable? The things he/she does? Or the person he/she is? I think both.
Brutus was among the mob that stabbed Caesar to death. “Sic Semper Tyranus!” Is he a villain or a hero?
The faceless thug who mugs is boring. Hannibal Lector is fascinating. The victims of his evil acts rather deserve what they get as though he has some sort of moral center in his awful being.
I think when you can make a villain appealing you are on your way to creating an unforgettable bad guy.
In “Heart Chants” published by CQ I created a half-Navajo, half-White teen who is my most unforgettable villain. Here’s how I found him. The only thing I knew about the story was that two female students from Haskell Indian College in Lawrence, Kansas, had gone missing. So I researched Haskell and learned that the largest Native American group represented among the student population was Navajo.
So I researched the Navajo and learned about a fascinating people, their history, and one of the most complicated and fascinating creation stories I’d ever encountered. I wanted to retell that story and introduce the Navajo to readers who did not know much about them.
A young teen boy is taken at night to sit in the ancient caves of the Anasazi to learn from the man he thought was his father that his father is someone else and his mother was a white missionary. I think this creates immediate sympathy in the reader for the boy. The man has something else to reveal: he is a witch. His father and his grandfathers were witches and they are on a great quest to reopen the gates to the Holy People to receive new gifts to help them deal with the White Man. The man gives the boy his secret name: Ko-yo-te.
The Navajo have a tradition of witches. You may have heard of skinwalkers, indeed one of Tony Hillerman’s books is so titled.
On subsequent nights, the witch relates to the boy the Navajo creation story. Unfortunately, although the goal to reopen the gates to the Holy People seems noble, it also requires of the witches some evil deeds. It’s the performing of those deeds and the consequences for other White and Navajo characters in Heart Chants that makes Ko-yo-te the villain, but one I hope that stays with the reader long after the book is finished.